RIA Links Salon in the Cloud
“Arts as Good Medicine” with Maren Kathleen Elliott
May 12, 2022
Maren Kathleen Elliott
As long as I can remember, I’ve been exposed to both the arts and the healthcare worlds. When
I grew up, I learned about illness, surgery, recovery, the challenges of working in the healthcare
system, at the dinner table when everybody was home from work. My mom had early mornings
doing surgery, the operating room, going to rounds.
And my dad had late nights working in his research lab and trying to get to that next grant
deadline. And I’m also remarkably privileged to have had quite a number, not only in my
nuclear family, but in my extended family and chosen family, folks who worked in healthcare,
who were in public health, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, nursing.
And so from a very early age, I had this understanding that people from all walks of life, no
matter where you’re from, at some point we’ll have some kind of interaction with the
healthcare system. And also that the folks who are working there every single day to make it
right. They’re just people, they’re people, they have hopes, they have fears, they have
frustrations, they have fulfilling moments and it’s just a part of life.
I also was remarkably privileged in my youth to have exposure to a lot of enrichment, arts
activities and opportunities. My siblings and I learned musical instruments from a young age, I
played an orchestra, sang in choirs. We went to the theater, we went to the ballet, went to
galleries. So I do think this immense privilege also was a foot into understanding kind of the art
world and its traditions, and really appreciating it. Because it’s something that my family really
Maren Kathleen Elliott
Here are just some natural examples of medical artifacts. Kind of easing their way, or like
making their way sideways into my artistic practice. Back in 2017, I was working on a portrait
series and those are just photos from me in the studio using old scrubs, as well as surgical
drapes to cover my clothing.
And sometimes there would be objects – things from the lab or from the hospital that were
being thrown out or discontinued – that I found to be quite beautiful, such as these vials in the
bottom left. So I also made a number of pieces with those objects. Those found objects as they
made their way to me, my first full-time job after hospital, after high school was portering at a
hospital at the Royal Alex Hospital in Edmonton.
And portering is a really interesting job because what you do is you run around, you go get
patients. Help them onto stretchers. You transfer them to another part of the hospital. You
change over, you clean and you change the sheets, you grab another patient, you move them
somewhere else. There’s medical samples that you take to the lab.
And so it’s a pretty amazing opportunity to sort of be a fly on the wall in these environments
because you aren’t burdened with the direct responsibility of providing care to the patients. So
I paid a lot of attention to the environment itself. On the right-hand side, you can see this
garden and an atrium.
It was one of my favorite spaces. It had a great effect on my mood, and I saw a lot of other
people who liked to visit it as well. And just the human interactions. And of course, because I
was always thinking about art and making art, the art that was in the hospital that I worked at
really stood out to me as well.
And I thought a lot about it. Here’s some examples of some of my favorite pieces. I took these
photos back in 2011 when I was working there. Some of them are still in the hospital, some
aren’t. This is Chris Cran, Hand Number Three.. It was a loan from the Alberta Foundation for
the Arts. And what I really loved about this piece, not only did it have this kind of striking image
and texture when you walked up to it, but in a way it was kind of an object of wayfinding
because it was this inviting hand, almost saying to folks who use stairs, ‘Hey, come this way’.
There were also some very beautiful portraits. These are by Violet Owen. One of them is still
there, the other is gone, but I just love them as a pair. And just seeing those colors and those
spaces as I went up the staircase that they were placed on, always sparked a little bit of joy,
even when it was a rough day.
This is one of my absolute favorite series that I got to walk by. And it wasn’t very often because
I worked in the Royal Alex Hospital and there’s a newer hospital that’s adjacent, it’s attached,
called the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, that was built in 2010. So it was a lot newer and there
had been a lot more recent attention put into the lighting and the decor and the, you know, the
whole, it was just newly built and designed.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
And so it was sort of a treat when I got to spend time in that space and walk through that
space. These images in the hallway are from a series by Stephen Csorba. They were donated,
corporate donations from EPCOR and Enbridge. And the series is called The Art of Hope, Energy
and Survival, and they’re high quality prints of a painting series he did related to his experience
surviving and going through cancer treatment.
But it wasn’t just the official art on the walls that I noticed. I also really appreciated the little
moments of creativity and humanity that sometimes snuck their way into the wards. Like this,
Unit 44, some staff member had drawn all these Mr. and Mrs. characters with the bird. And it
was just joyful to look at and you can still see it was being functionally used as a whiteboard.
You see those transfers, discharges, and post-ops, but there was a little bit of extra space and
they took advantage of that to make some beauty. There was also a poetry series by Gerald St.
Mauer and Christine van Eyck, the pedal suites that were combination of sketching and
drawing. So there was lots to look at every time I went by, sometimes I would read sometimes I
And another thing I noticed besides the art were really the people. People think of hospitals
separate from the rest of society. They think of them as their own self-contained bubbles, but
they’re full of people. That’s all they are. There are people running the system. There are
people receiving care. And inside of all these people is just this vast wealth of different
And origin stories. And I noticed I was just – I was really young – and I’d just go down to the
basement at the beginning of my shift, I stripped down, I’d take off my street clothes, the
clothing that I used to identify as myself, I’d put my scrubs on, put my badge on, come back
upstairs. And suddenly people looked at me as though I belonged there, as though I knew about
I would be able to help direct them. Of course, I’d tell them ‘Go to the hand painting and turn
left.’ And it’s a funny thing. Pam Hall, who’s a social practice artist based in Newfoundland, did a
residency at Memorial University in their medical school in the late nineties. And she did this
project called Making Introductions.
She took inspiration from the process – now we use electronic medical records – but at the time
doctors would go and they take a history with a clipboard and she wanted to take that same
practice and take a sort of experiential or emotional or identity type of a history rather than
looking at their bodies, like a doctor would do with a patient.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
So she took three images – and she did this with a number of physicians, but also other kinds of
nurses and other kinds of staff in the hospital – she took a photo of them in their regular street
clothes, a photo of them in their work uniform, and then a photo of them in a patient’s gown,
or a Johnny Coat as they call them, that open-back gown.
And then she would ask them a series of questions about their experiences. Because even if
you’re a doctor, you get sick sometimes, you need surgery. So they had all had these
experiences of receiving care and what it felt like to be in that gown, versus being in their street
clothes, and how that made them feel.
And often there is that stripping down of identity, especially for staff, but that’s functional.
You’re doing your job. People need to know what your job is and what you’re doing there. But
when it comes to being a patient, when you go into that patient’s gown, and you put the
wristband on, there really is this real transformation that happens: from you being you to you
being a recipient of care, and that power dynamic that comes with it. So I thought of it a little
bit like ink. If you look at black or blue ink, you just see the one color, and that’s what happens a
little bit with uniforms. And again, it’s functional. You have to read the writing of that pen,
But if you look inside of it, there’s so much more that people have to offer. And sometimes my
colors inside, or my, you know, personality was a little bit of a challenge working in this
environment. It’s very hierarchical. It’s very systematic. It’s very efficient and that’s awesome
because it needs to be, we are saving lives.
We are doing very important work, risky procedures sometimes. But on the other hand, I saw
just witnessing a lot of red tape when it came to creative problem solving and thinking a little
bit outside of the box. And I think definitely a part of it is just. challenge with resource
availability and burnout, but I had a couple of experiences.
One example is when I would take patients from upstairs to downstairs, where they were going
to be getting their surgery, there was this long hallway before you got to the OR. And a lot of
them when I’d come and I’d say, it’s time for us to go, they’d say, ‘no, no, no’. Folks that could
walk, cause they’d want to walk. They’d say ‘no, no, no, I can walk, this is silly’, but it was
procedure. And there were good reasons that we had to take them on the stretcher. And so
already they’re out of their equilibrium. It’s a scary experience going into surgery. And then
they were there flat on their backs in an unusual position.
And they had to look at these blank, white ceiling tiles while they were going through this
whole emotional experience. And one time I commented, ‘well wouldn’t it be cool if there was
something hanging there, a mural on the ceiling tiles, something that would just provide a little
bit of beauty and distraction for folks right before they go into surgery.’
Maren Kathleen Elliott
And I commented, and I remember just the whole attitude of people hearing that was shut up
and sit down, that’s the silliest idea, that would never happen. Infection control, this and that,
that’s just dumb. And another time we had this whiteboard in the block room, which is sort of
the nursing station, where porters we’d be there with the anesthesiologists and nursing staff,
and then we’d stay there too. And portering has a lot of waves of work, especially when you
were working in day surgery, as I was, because there’s this rush in the morning when
everybody’s getting to the operating theaters, then there’s a little quiet time while they’re
getting surgery. And then the whole process sort of repeats. So in these quiet moments,
sometimes my coworkers would do a crossword, read a magazine.
And as long as we were quiet and on alert, we be able to jump up and go as soon as were
called, we were allowed to sort of entertain ourselves. And one day, I’d been thinking about
this for a while, cause there’s this whiteboard that would always get the date written at the top
of it, and otherwise it was just kept like totally blank and sterile.
And after a while I just started in these wait times, these little quiet periods, doing a daily
doodle. And I talked to the staff who were there, or the patients who happened to be in the
block room at that moment. I said, I’m going to draw something on the whiteboard. What
would you like to see today?
What’s your favorite animal? Oh, I love cats. Let’s do a city. And I just sort of have that as a little
fun interaction, entertaining myself, but also just providing a little bit of life in a space. That’s
how it felt. And after some time of doing this, I remember my boss storming in and saying
who’s been scribbling on the whiteboards, whoever it is – everybody sort of like turns and looks
Well, whoever’s doing that needs to stop right now because it’s completely unprofessional. So I
stopped. And that was the moment when I thought, well, a place like this is really not a place
for a person like me. So I shut up. I, you know, I was quiet. I sat down, I shut out the me part of
me when I went to work and I just did my job like this.
And so. Let’s jump forward to 2020. I saw a poster that was for an online presentation, about an
artist who had done a residency at a hospital, St. Vincent here in Ottawa. And I thought, well, I
have a connection to both those things. I’m really curious, I’ll sign up. And that was the very
first Salon in the Cloud with RIA Links and like cj, who was the artist in residence, she’s here
it just blew my mind because here was a person who had been invited in to a hospital setting
explicitly for the purpose of thinking outside of the box, witnessing, observing, developing
relationships and humanizing the space through collaborative creative means. I really love, I
borrowed this slide from her presentation. Here you see some staff and some of her patient
collaborators working on a mural that they did. And she said, Key Collaborator, Molly. Molly
was a patient, but cj didn’t call her a patient. She recognized Molly as an artist and made an
effort to acknowledge that first. And cj apparently got a really good feedback on this mural and
people would say, ‘Great job, cj’.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
And cj said, ‘Well, I started it, but it was the patients who filled it in. And it was the patients who
decided what it would look like’. So not only was she in there and being creative and you know,
enhancing the beauty of the space and making things interesting, but she was really doing it in
a way that was so people centered.
They did a study on the impact of cj’s residency – I’ll talk a little bit more about it later – but
here’s a quote that really stood out to me from that. It’s from one of the participants who said,
“cj was the only person I had intellectual conversations with. And that is a very important part
of my being and sense of being. These conversations were nourishing. They made me
remember who I am. I’m not my disease. I’m not my disability. I am more than that.” And that
just really stuck with me. I said, I’ve got to talk to this person. I have to find out who this cj is.
Because it just was so powerful. And in her talk, she also talked about, you know, the work of
CAD homes, looking at disability not as an individual problem, as a personal health condition,
but actually as a mismatch between people and the world around them.
And she was using her art to help bridge that mismatch. At the end of her talk, one thing, well,
one thing that had come out when she was in doing residency, was that families and patients
had remarked on how dull some of the art at St. Vincent Hospital was and how it really wasn’t
doing much for them. So she put a call out at the end of her presentation, seeking an emerging,
interdisciplinary, social practice artist to help build an innovative and inclusive approach to
curation, addressing medicalized spaces as vessels for quality art, active imagination, and user
So that was pretty cool. And I emailed her and we talked the next day for a long time. And it’s
just been rolling ever since then. But that’s a lot of words. I’m going to break it down a little bit
in terms of what she meant. I think the main thing was just thinking about the issue of the art
and the space not serving the people there.
Why not use similar social practice approaches, inclusive approaches that are collaborating with
families and patients, especially patients who have, like often don’t have a lot of voice in those
settings. Who often get talked about, about their care, but not, you know, collaborated with.
Why not take those approaches and start looking at the art in the space.
And here’s, here’s a problem about art and hospitals and other medical settings. And it’s not
just those spaces, too. There are other spaces that have this problem, which is something I like
to call imposed aesthetics. Every space that you go into has a vibe. There’s certain colors on the
walls, there’s sunlight, or maybe there’s no sunlight.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
The way that objects are arranged, the things that are in the space, all make an impact on the
mood and our experience of that space. And the average person – like, I can just go to a place.
Maybe it’s a library, maybe it’s a subway station, I get my feelings about those spaces. Maybe I
go to a building like I’m going to get my license renewed and I have to go to that building.
But at the end of the day, I can just go. When I’m done my task there I come home. I come to
this space where I’m very comfortable. I’m surrounded by objects that have meaning to me,
photos of my family, my plants, and I’ve taken control and, you know, designed my own
environment. People do this with their desks and their lockers too.
But when you’re maybe the person who’s incarcerated, you might not have that same amount
of control. And the same goes for folks who are, for example, in long-term care. Maybe there’s
little ways you can personalize, but not to the extent that many of us have. I liken it a little bit
to being sort of like stuck on hold when you’re waiting for something on the phone, and they’re
just playing that awful hold music on a loop. Maybe it’s great to have music. Music is lovely. But
when you’re stressed and you need something and you’re being forced to listen to the same
few minutes of music over and over, that can actually increase your stress. You can get, like,
you know, bad saxophone trauma from having to wait on customer service for too long – little
Another experience of mine I had, I was going to my general practitioner for a routine pap test
and that’s sort of a vulnerable procedure. I was on the examination table with my legs up in the
stirrups, sitting on the paper towel like a chicken, and someone in the clinic had put this
cardboard cutout of a baby on the ceiling that said, ‘no problem’. And I thought, ‘this sucks’.
This is a terrible decision. I don’t want to look at this baby. First of all – and you know, when
you’re lying there, you don’t have much of a choice. And I thought, what about people for
whom these kinds of procedures are extraordinarily stressful. People who have had
experiences, fears around cancer, fertility issues, and they have to look at a baby say ‘no
problem’. You know what? Maybe there is a problem. So it felt very insensitive and, you know,
people think, ‘oh, art is great, music is great’. And it is, but it’s not always helpful. It can be
unhelpful too. Another example is I had a friend, when we were teenagers she had to spend
quite a bit of time in rehabilitation. And she had this room with this poster of a clown that she
hated, and she had to get family friends to come cover it up so she didn’t have to look at it all
Art historian Mary Hunter talks about this in her experience when her mother was receiving
treatment for cancer. She said when they went into the foyer, the grand entrances, there was
some really beautiful striking artwork. Obviously resources had been put there and they made a
really good impression, but on the actual ward where her mother was, a lot of the artwork had
been donated. Donated in memory of people who had been treated there. And so the subject
matter was chosen by people who were in mourning. And that really showed through in some
of the pieces. There was an image of a little boy with the ghost of his grandfather. There was a
painting with empty deck chairs by a lake by a cottage and it said ‘the last visit’. So for Mary and
her mother, they couldn’t even go down that hallway.
And yet it was just there. So even wellintentioned choices can sometimes have a
mismatch between, you know, what people think, art is going to be helping here versus
the actual experience of people being stuck with it.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
But art doesn’t have to be unhelpful. And I think if you really consciously choose things and you
use research and use conversations and you have a process where you’re really involving staff
and families and patients and these environments, it can make a super positive impact.
There is a term called placemaking that’s sort of a buzzword – you hear it a lot in design – and
it’s the idea that every building you go into is a space. But what makes a space a place is the
stories that happen inside of it, the interactions, the feelings, the memories. And you can help
foster these positive experiences, and certain kinds of interactions and behaviors, by making
choices about how the space is built, what’s in that space, where’s their seating. Where is there
sunlight? Is there going to be a public art piece? All these things can help make the space into a
place. In hospitals y ou have to consider… it’s a tricky balance, you’re not going to please
everyone when you’re making these spaces into places, Alexandra Kirsch, who’s the curator at
the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, says that there’s this universal experience in a hospital
that many of us can relate to. That’s hurry up, hurry up. And then you wait. And then you hurry
and you wait, and that’s just how the system works. But when you’re catering to patients and
visitors, you have to keep in mind the spectrum of emotion that goes between fear and stress,
sort of this psychological overstimulation.
And on the other end of it is boredom, under-stimulation. So some folks, if you’re really, really
stressed, maybe you want something that’s going to soothe you. Images of nature, waterfalls,
and early on in the research on art and hospitals, they found a lot of excellent evidence for this.
Especially also gardens. We know a lot about the healing power of gardens, but what about
when you’re bored? You want something to distract yourself, to be interested in, something
that you can read or think about that’s not the problem that you’re really worried about. So
that’s something to consider as well.
And curating can be a sort of extended form of healthcare. If you look back at the definition of
curation, it comes from this idea of curing disease or restoring to health. So the traditional
curator was going to be collecting and, of course, taking care of objects. And we might, you
know, the image might come to mind of some white dude who’s collected objects from around
the world and put it in an ivory tower institution where the rich can go and feel cultured and
special. And it’s very elitist and exclusive, but luckily museums and galleries and sort of the
whole art world is starting to get that there’s also value in expanding out into the general
public. And I would love – and there’s more participatory, community-based approaches
working with people and different communities – I would love to see more of this happening.
This idea of community in the art world, for them to expand their thinking and to thinking
about medical spaces as also being community spaces and places where cultural appreciation
and production should be happening as well. There has been art in hospitals for a long time in
the Western world.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
In the medieval times when medicine was not necessarily as effective, we didn’t have the same
tools and techniques and understandings. They couldn’t necessarily do a lot to help a sick
person. They could maybe leach them or bleed them and they could pray and just hope for the
best. So there was the incorporation of religious iconography and also an understanding of
something that they could do was at least create an environment that was going to be relaxing
and foster healing. So even there’s, I heard stories about historical hospitals in Europe having
works with the great masters, such as Rembrandt, in them. But as medicine advanced, we
started understanding germ theory, the human body, and medicine became modern medicine
as we know it now. That understanding of the importance of environment fell by the wayside.
And there was this very reductionist mentality of a person being a body and body parts to heal.
And that’s how we got to where we are now. That’s how we developed our understanding. But
luckily, I think with the advancements of tools and technologies that we have now, we’ve
gotten to a point where people have sort of the brain space and perspective to start thinking
about environment again. And there’s a growing trend of something called healing architecture,
which is all about this. Art can have a lot of functions in medical settings. The mere presence of
art has been shown to increase feelings of patient safety, socialization opportunities,
connectedness to the outside world, and a sense of identity.
So it can be soothing, in that waterfall example I mentioned. It can provide cognitive and
emotional stimulation, distractions, wayfinding, like that hand. Connecting, starting
conversations. So being able to go and look at something and chat with someone that’s not
about being sick or how scared you are. Also a sense of belonging, identity. So maybe you
you’re in the hospital and you have that Johnny Coat on, and you’re a patient, but you see a
landscape that’s a childhood scene for you, or you see someone wearing regalia from their
culture, and suddenly there’s that reminder of like, ‘I am more than this’.
Another thing that are – and hospitals can be really good for – is not everybody necessarily goes
to the art gallery. Again, that’s getting better, but culturally speaking, that’s not something that
everybody has the opportunity to do. But everybody has to go to the hospital at one point or
the other. So if you’re putting high quality art in these settings, it’s an opportunity to actually
reach a lot more people.
I’m going to talk about a few examples of art in hospitals that I learned about during my
research. Two were local projects from my hometown, Edmonton, as well as one international
example, Chelsea and Westminster. I also just wanted to put a caveat here that art is used in
medicine. It is used in healthcare settings through a number of, in a number of professions in
art therapy, occupational therapy, recreational therapy, as a sort of therapeutic tool. And that’s
really great. And, but for today, I’m going to be focusing more broadly on art and artists in the
environment. Friends of the University of Alberta Hospital has been around for 30 years and
they have a really robust program, including a gallery in the hospital where they bring in art
from the outside world. Really jury quality shows as well as artists on the ward. So some of you
heard music before this presentation happened. That was a harp player who has been with
them a long time, who will go to bedside and play music. So they have poets, musicians, visual
artists. And they also have, they manage a giant collection of works that are taken care of by a
professional curator and have been really carefully considered for the people in that space.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
They did a study a few years ago on the impact of the collection, what they could do better,
what was working well. And there was some really interesting insights that came from that. The
top left here, we have a piece by Indigenous artist Aaron Paquette, called Mother Earth Gives
Us The Seasons. People really love that piece because not only does it have that cultural, like,
that cultural link, but you walk along the hall and there would be this series of work that had a
logical connection, that told a story with different imageries about the seasons.
On the righthand side, there’s a piece, there’s a patient looking at a piece, I have a better picture.
It’s called Walter Always Feels a Sense of Freedom When he Wears his Hospital Gown.
And it’s this guy booking it with his little butt hanging out, a figurine.
And so using humor. On the bottom left, Ellen Cunningham, who’s the curator there,
said that this is an example – it’s work by Christina Coudray-
she said it was an example of art that’s abstract working really well and being very well received
by people in the hospital. And she attributes that to its placement on a very large
wall that’s well lit, the colors, and also the fact that it’s not just abstract. When you look at the
painting, there are hints of representation, little beehives, dragonflies. So it’s the kind of piece
that you’d actually be able to come back to time and time again, and maybe see different things
every time. This is just a quote. And I don’t know if it’s completely word for word, cause I heard
it via Ellen, but one of the artists on the ward who is a poet talks about how medical staff help
the patients by identifying what’s wrong with them. But when you get artists in that space, they
have space and opportunity to help remember what’s right with them and who they are
beyond the hospital walls. Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, UK, is, I would say, a
real leader in research and developments on healing and art in hospitals. They’ve looked into
VR, their ICU is specially designed with lighting and sound in mind, and they’ve had some really
innovative approaches. And they’re also, like, taking, they’re doing research and they’re getting
data on how this is actually helping staff morale and patient outcomes. One project that really
stood out to me was their moving animal portrait project in pediatrics.
The artistic director, Tristin Hawkins, went and he observed peds emergency. And he started
talking to kids there, which is really key cause here’s that co-creation element actually
consulting with the people who are there and being affected, rather than just coming in and
making a decision yourself. And he said, What would you like to see here? And apparently a
new Harry Potter movie had just come out and some of the kids said, ‘Gee wouldn’t be cool if
we could have moving paintings, just like in Harry Potter’. And shortly after that, he was
observing a young child getting blood drawn. And in order to distract the child, there was a
nurse who was playing a YouTube video of a hamster to this kid.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
So Tristian kind of put those things together. And he said, why don’t we try a project where we
are going to use… you know, moving paintings are possible with flat-screen TVs. So they
commissioned a series of animal portraits where the animals would move a little bit on a loop.
It was a little bit engaging, but not super, you know, it wasn’t jarring either.
And what they found was an 87% reduction in reported pain from kids who were in the rooms
with the paintings versus rooms with no moving paintings when they were getting their blood
drawn. So that’s huge. But pediatrics is a super easy sell. There’s this inherent understanding.
Like everybody loves kids. They’re super cute. And everyone knows that when a kid is scared or
something stressful is happening, they should have comfort. They should have enrichment.
They should have beauty, color, stimulation. So normally if you go to a kid’s clinic or a kid’s
hospital, there’ll be art there. Like people get that and there’s money in that.
But unfortunately that’s not always the case for all populations. And that reflects how society
views certain groups of people. For example everybody likes to, you know, invest in beauty and
the environment for kids. But what about folks who are in long-term care or populations who
are stigmatized, such as patients who are receiving care for psychiatric issues.
And this brings me to my next example. This is a smaller, much smaller scale. It’s just a single
project rather than a big program, like the other two, but this is the Grey Nuns Hospital
Psychiatry Art Project. And I had the opportunity to interview Jan Banasch, who was the former
site chief of psychiatry, and who spearheaded this whole project. It all started with these
terrible, terrible pink walls that she hated. And it wasn’t just her, other people complained
about them too. And apparently every single other wall in the entire hospital had been
repainted except for the psych department still had the original pink that had been chosen in
the 1980s. And this is just an example of how our societal biases do trickle down and, like, have
an effect on decisions that are made in these spaces, and policy that’s made and what we
prioritize or don’t prioritize. And she said, you know, if a mission statement of Covenant Health
is the compassionate care of the mentally ill, why aren’t we addressing it in our living
environment? And so she started asking about this, she started advocating to get the walls
repainted, and she said she had to play administration for the better part of a year. It got to the
point that there was one administrator, apparently, who would run around the corner when
she saw Dr. Banasch because she knew that Dr. Banasch was going to say, when is this going to
happen? When are we going to repaint? And finally, after this whole process, this whole one
year back and forth, they repainted the walls white. And once they were white, she said, ‘Gee,
this is lovely. Wouldn’t it be great if we put art up on these walls’ and that’s how the art rehang
Maren Kathleen Elliott
So she partnered up with an organization called the Art Mentorship Society of Alberta, which is
a collective of artists who have lived experience with mental illness. Many of whom actually had
received treatment or gone through outpatient programs at the Grey Nuns itself. And she
organized for staff to go and select work by these artists, which they then paid, you know, they
bought it full price and got it professionally framed and put up on the walls, completely
transforming the space.
Here’s some examples of the artists with their work. I was one of the artists whose pieces was
purchased and it was so exciting. It was the first time my art had been in a permanent
collection. And I think there was similar excitement for many of my colleagues in the
organization. Bottom left is Shawn Zinyk with a beautiful painting of a tree. And then on the top
left, we have Kim Pher who’s showing off some boot paintings and a portfolio, and I think that
background that you see, that pink, is the pink that Jan was talking about. There was some fear
from administration that if you got art from patients, from people who experienced mental
illness, and put it in a psychiatric ward, that it would be too edgy, too upsetting, too triggering
for patients, it might set them off.
But what they found was that some of these images, even if they were a little bit more difficult,
like this painting Myself In Blue by Anita, there was therapeutic value in it because some
patients felt empathized with, they felt seen and there was something they could point to to
help maybe describe how they were feeling in times when words just really don’t do the trick.
This hasn’t been formally studied, but I would really, really love to see some official research
done onto this project. Just because all the stories that I heard through interviewing people
were so powerful. And even beyond the patient’s experience, even there were people like
maintenance staff who got super into helping hang the paintings and decide where they went.
And there was this sense of connection and meaning there.
There hasn’t been a lot of specific research into co-curation and health. But I’m going to just
talk briefly about a couple of studies that are sort of related. This one is about aesthetic value
of paintings affecting people’s experience of pain. So what these researchers did is they got
their participants to look at a series of paintings and rate them as beautiful, ugly, or neutral.
And so each one of these was the person’s own choice to say, this is a beautiful one, this is an
ugly one, it varied from person to person. And then they showed them things, or they showed
them nothing, as a baseline. And they zapped them in the hand. And what they found is when
people were getting their zaps and they were looking at a painting that they had identified as
beautiful, their experience of pain was less compared to when they were looking at things they
had identified as ugly, or the baseline of nothing at all.
There was a great study out of Denmark on how patients experience and use art in hospitals.
They took a number of pieces from the Danish art museum and got patients to rank them,
again, based on their personal preferences. And people were more comfortable, they felt more
social, and a stronger sense of identity, when surrounded by their personally higher ranked art.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
The last study I was going to mention was the official study that was done on cj’s residency at
St. Vincent. And one thing they mentioned in that study was when there was public display of
the patient’s own work, like those murals, for example, that helped support a sense of meaning,
purpose, and pride for the patients. They got to go tell the staff about it, family members: ‘oh,
did you know I did this mural, let’s take a look.’ They could talk about the choices, the
experience. And so that was really meaningful compared to just sort of a random hotel poster
that’s been there for 50 years. The one thing I would caution about this is that we don’t only
show art therapy, art, or patient art because that closes the chain of the hospital and makes it
insular. Whereas we can, I think, help, like I said, connect people with the outside world, which
is very valuable too. So I think there is a balance to be found between the two.
The University of Michigan has a really awesome, simple program they’ve figured out. Now
they have a bunch of things, sort of like the University of Alberta. They have a big collection,
they have artists and residents, artists in residence, and they have bedside musicians. But one
of their programs that really stood out to me was this Art Cart program. And they figured out,
they specially designed these carts, it’s volunteer run, and they have this library of posters that
are framed in such a way that you can easily wipe them down so you’re not spreading around
bugs through the art. And then the volunteers will go to the bedside and give the patients a
range of options saying, do you want any of these by your bed? And they can easily switch them
out. So these people are not stuck with the clown poster, luckily. They’re able to have at least
that tiny, tiny bit of say, of look, have something in their environment that they can look at that
was their choice. So some of the popular items were images of nature, images of from famous
works from museums, they’ve had, also, the items of local significance. So for example, posters
of the college sports team, a lot of people choose that, and this is a reason why we need to talk
to patients. And this is patient driven, because I am not into sports and I would never in a
million years say, ‘you know, what we should put up is, like, the football team’, but my
preferences don’t matter here. It’s about the patient. And if they want the picture of the
football team and that’s going to be meaningful for them, then that’s wonderful.
And what they’ve been able to do with this Art Cart program, in addition to getting it up and
running, is they have all this data about what people like and don’t like, because they keep
records of everything that’s loaned, how long it’s loaned for, and they can use this information
when they acquire future posters, so it’s kind of iterative. And I’d like to imagine it’s, you know,
it’s informed by the kind of the current day public rather than being stuck in the past. And this
is something I also really appreciated about that, about that study, that university that was
done at the University of Alberta Hospital, as well. They could take these focus groups and take
the feedback and integrate that knowledge into their curatorial practices.
But there are some big challenges with co-curation, too. One of them is, this is it’s happening
here and there, but it’s not… it’s starting to grow, but there’s nothing hugely centralized yet.
And it’s a new kind of intervention for a lot of spaces. There are some leaders, but there are a
lot of smaller facilities that really haven’t put resources into this, or they maybe are not able to,
and our system is already strained. We don’t want to compete with the need for nurses to be
paid better. We need another social worker. There’s going to be a life-saving device for this
thing. We can’t compete with taxpayer healthcare dollars that needs to go to saving lives. And
really, like, the medical side of things. So all the programs, like Grey Nuns Art Project, was
funded by staff. And that was just a passion project of Dr. Banasch. And you, like, the Friends of
the University of Alberta Hospital is run by a nonprofit or a charity where they get corporate
and public donations. It’s all fundraised separately. So it is an issue trying to get the resources
that you can start implementing these things, and also research them, learn about the effects,
and disseminate that so that we can refine the approach and hopefully spread what we’re
doing. Another thing is communication and consent. We can’t always know, like one thing
that’s going to work for one person is going to be terrible for another. And that’s always the
giant challenge. And I think this becomes more challenging when you’re working with
populations that maybe struggle communicating verbally, for example. Should they not be part
of this conversation just because they can’t easily talk? But then how do you get that
information? And there are some efforts being made: like, University of Alberta has this
interdisciplinary project where they’re looking at soundscapes in the ICU and using artificial
intelligence to narrow down and refine soundscapes that are personalized to an individual
based on the biofeedback that they’re recording when the people are hearing the soundscapes.
But again, there are some big challenges in terms of consent there. And I’d be very curious, I
think it’s early days for them, so I’m going to definitely be following it and seeing how they
navigate some of those challenges.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
Another challenge is the long-term sustainability. So a lot of hospitals, when they get built or
renovated, there’s, it’s mandated that there’s a certain percentage of the budget – a small
percentage – will go into art for the space. Often it’s 1%. And most of the time, what happens is
they hire in an interior decor person, or maybe they contract in a curator, and the art gets put
up on the walls. And then, they get helicoptered in, you know, and then they just leave, and it’s
just left on its own devices. But the people who are in the hospital in 1985 are not the same
people in the hospital in 2022, right? Like sensibilities change, maybe the populations that
they’re serving change. So if we want to co-curate and really take into consideration the people
who are in those spaces, it needs to be dialogical and it needs to be iterative, and it needs to be
So how do we get people to understand that this isn’t something that you just dump and go?
Maren Kathleen Elliott
I’m going to be at St. Vincent Hospital starting this summer to do a pilot
research project on some co-curation approaches, and cj, with her residency, has laid a lot of
really awesome groundwork. I know I talked about University of Michigan’s Art Cart, and cj,
when she was artist in residence, or afterwards, she developed something for culture days that
was called Art Tour for Bedside Art Fans. So for patients at St. Vincent who were not mobile,
who were not able to just go around and see the work that she had made with patients, and
the changes that she’d made in the environment through her collaborative art, they used iPads
that the hospital had anyway, and people were able to, from bed digitally, go around the
hospital and see the art.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
So I’d be very curious if we can sort of piggyback or expand on that effort, taking into
consideration not just the people as they’re going through the space, but how, if people are in
one single space, how you can still grant access and accessibility. Even something as simple as
where a painting is hanging. Is it in the sight line of someone in a wheelchair? Like these are
things that need to be thought about and assessed.
I’m going to leave us today with some calls to action. I think on a local level, something that
would be really cool, I’ve… there’s been words going around. There’s quite a few people who
are beginning to retire, who might’ve been art collectors, and maybe they’re moving into a
condo and they have art that they don’t want to just go to waste. I think there’s a lot of
potential for donations of quality art. Even in Ottawa at St. Vincent, to replace some of the art
that was described in the study as drab or dull. But we need to make sure that people aren’t
just also treating the hospital as a sort of Goodwill or a place they could just dump stuff that
they don’t want. We need to take it back to the patients, the staff, the people who are there,
and make sure that the acquisitions that do happen are going to be valuable and meaningful. So
I think, I don’t know if it would be a website or some kind of form, back and forth process, but I
would love to develop something along those lines.
Another thing that needs to be done is fostering relationships with allies, for art, who already
have a voice in medical communities and healthcare settings. So this could be site chiefs, CEOs,
you know, admin leaders, teachers. A lot of the projects I talked about to date, cj’s residency
was spearheaded, it was championed by Dr. Carol Wiebe, who used to be VP of External Affairs
at Bruyère, and said, we should get an artist in here. And before her doctor times, before she
became a doctor, she actually was professionally trained musician and did music and perform.
So that’s someone who just really gets art and gets the power of it, who was within the system
saying let’s make something happen. Let’s bring that in here. Dr. Jan Banasch, out of psychiatry,
it was a similar thing because she was psych chief. She had a little bit more of a voice to
advocate for repainting, and then getting paintings up in the wall, versus, like, a patient who’s
just stuck there saying this clown sucks.
I would love to do something like get some lecture series, even to medical students, for
example, folks who were in training for healthcare positions in public health – get them while
they’re young – to start thinking about these kinds of things. But not just building connections
with people in healthcare, but also on a broader scale, folks in politics, building connections
with parliamentarians to spread this message and disseminate within parliament and the
broader public, because they really have, they have a voice.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
And one example of a person who’s been doing awesome work is Senator Patricia Bovie. She
was a former art director who was instrumental in the creation of a hospital art gallery at St.
Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. And since she’s become a Senator, she’s done projects,
amplifying the voices of Black artists, advocating for Indigenous artists, as well as art and
hospitals. So she’s been talking a lot about this. She’s done great work, and if we could develop
more relationships with people like that, and help support them and share what they’re doing.
And that would be really helpful, I think,too, – promoting this kind of, and supporting these
kinds of initiatives. But it’s not just hospital people. It’s not just parliamentarians. There needs
to be some understanding and appreciation and value of this in terms of the broader public as
well. Tristan Hawkins, who’s the artistic director at Chelsea Westminster in London, said, you
know, making a case in the public eye is crucial to raising the funds that they use for their
research and for their art in the hospital program.
The last thing is this is not a one person job. I can’t just go in and do it. cj couldn’t just go in and
do this on her own. It has to be in conversation that’s happening throughout networks across
disciplines in healthcare, as well as the art world. And we have to make sure, as well, that the
folks who often don’t have voices in these kinds of situations – for example, the patients, people
in long-term care – we need to make sure that they’re reached, people who have disabilities
need to make sure that their voices are part of a conversation too. And that takes an effort, but
that’s an effort that’s really worth making. There’s this ‘nothing about us without us’. And I
think this really needs to be applied here in terms of co-curation because otherwise there
wouldn’t be the ‘co’ in the practice. So, thank you everyone for coming to this today.
And I just want to give a shout out to cj because I have honestly learned so, so much from you
and I’ve been so inspired by your work. And I’m really excited to move, like go from the
foundation that you’ve built at St. Vincent. And to everyone who I interviewed when I was
doing this research, who told me your stories, thank you very much. If you have any ideas or
questions, do you ever want to sit down on zoom or have a coffee and discuss this stuff more,
feel free to contact me. I wrote my email down on the bottom left, and we’re also going to send
out a resource sheet after this along with the recording. So my contact information will be
there as well. And that’s it.
Well, thanks. Thanks Maren. That is really well put together and I know you have loads more
and that you’ve just really wisely picked the top points and strung it together really well. Wow.
There’s so much. How do you feel?
Yeah, that’s great. You, you just covered a little bit about the future of your, your work. I
wanted to pick up on, I really liked the point and I, and I think that it’s, I think that it’s really a
shock for people in the capital A art world. I mean, I know that there’s public, you know, let’s
reach out to the public and promotion – I’m talking about the capital A art world – and that, that
there is outreach and community outreach and often things like audience development. But I
think when I think that it, that it is the challenge to the art world, when people start thinking we
can bring… now I’ve been, I find this fascinating. I find it the most contemporary edge of
contemporary art that you actually don’t have to have control of the entire process and that
other people can be in dialogue. The co-creation of what a place becomes. And so I, I like, I
really appreciate that you talked about who can be in the, who can be in the conversation.
That’s been a, really, an access of my action for ages.
What I wanted to mention a little bit, I think we need to give a lot… the maintenance staff
always become, like when you do a project in a school or a project in an industrial facility, or a
business, the maintenance staff – even Robin Pacific, through an Ontario Arts Council Grant, did
a project with, was it maintenance workers or I think it was guard museums – I mean, are these
people that we think are just peripheral can be so central and so incredibly supportive. Not only
that, they have rooms full of supplies and know all these… and they have poles and scaffold,
and once they come on board and you let them into your mind because you actually welcome
them into a conversation, they, they open up their closet of possibility.
And so I think that’s really, you’ve covered so much by hitting on them. I wondered if you
wanted to talk about other spaces and people that might be involved in your work this summer.
Or if you are comfortable.
Maren Kathleen Elliott
Sure, sure. I was just writing a note in the chat, but I’ll just say it, too. I wanted to acknowledge
BAMO, Bruyère Academic Medical Association, because they’re going to be funding, they’re
funding my work actually at St. Vincent starting this summer, and for a whole year to be doing a
pilot project there.
In terms of like people involved …
What kind of things are you and Carol thinking about?
Maren Kathleen Elliott
I’d really be curious. See, I have yet – I’ve been thinking and talking and writing applications and
doing all this work to finally get into St. Vincent and it’s going to happen so soon and I’ve never
been onsite. So I’m pretty sure like the very first task that I will have…. and I have, like, I have
Carol on, on my team and like Jonah, Dr. Jonah Marek is here too, principal investigator on this
study. They know the client, they know the population there and they know a lot more about it.
But when I go in, I’m going to have to be doing a lot of, I think, observing and standing back
before I just jump in and insert myself and my ideas, even though I’m really excited, right?
Because it’s social practice, it’s not just my practice. So the first thing that Eva, my summer
student, and I are actually going to be doing is doing a complete survey and inventory of all the
work that’s there already, because there hasn’t been a centralized organized way of doing that
so far. And that’s gonna give us a lot of information. We’re going to try to do, get some
feedback about some of the work there, whether people like it or not. And I’m hoping that will
be a good starting point, giving us insight for moving forward to an actual active stage where
we work with patients and/or staff to do a re-hang and then see how that goes for people.